The Selma, Ala., native has nearly 20 years of experience as an educator and school district leader, most recently serving as superintendent of the Austin Independent School District in Texas. She took over that same role for the Atlanta district officially starting July 7, replacing Erroll Davis, who retired.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” Carstarphen said of her first few weeks on the job. “There’s a lot going on at APS, but there’s a lot more that should be going on to ensure we have a great start to the school year.”
A campaign encouraging attendance on the first day of school, which is today, has been among her initial focuses. Carstarphen said data shows about 5,000 of the district’s more than 47,000 students miss the first day. The basic formula for success and graduating on time starts with good attendance, she said.
Back-to-school issues extend beyond attendance.
“The work starting in early July has been overwhelmingly focused on the start of the school year and making sure we have some of the basic systems in place that were problematic last school year or in recent years,” Carstarphen said. “So we did a lot of work around our bus routes, scheduling, a lot of the things that most districts take for granted, but for APS, it has been somewhat troublesome for a few years.”
Some have criticized Carstarphen’s leadership style for being too independent, but the new superintendent said she is driven by a passion for seeing students achieve. She said she studied at Harvard University specifically for superintendency in an urban education setting, learning from the best.
“[Many urban education] environments are very typically adult-centric, focused on adult issues [and] tied into deep politics that distract us from our core purpose,” Carstarphen said. “My leadership is very straightforward. It’s led by instruction and education for children. That is a foreign concept in environments like this.”
She said the three biggest challenges facing the district, of which she would like to focus improvement, are student success, human resources and operational and internal systems.
“We really want to be able to continue to build on the starting momentum on increasing the graduation rates and reducing our dropout rates,” Carstarphen said, referring to the district's 59 percent graduation rate.
Recruiting talented leaders is important to the superintendent. Among her new leadership team, she brought in Pamela Hall from Austin to lead the district’s human resources department.
“I think a big part of our work is really going to be about human resources really getting the right people — high-quality people — to stay and continue with APS [and recruiting] others to take on the jobs and the needs of the district moving forward,” Carstarphen said.
Seat 8 at-large school board member Cynthia Briscoe Brown spoke in favor of the new direction in which she believes Carstarphen will lead the district at the July 10 Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods meeting.
“Meria is the right person in the right place at the right time,” Brown said. “Over a very short period of time, I think you will begin to see positive change [and] forward movement on so many of these issues that have come around for so long.”
Atlanta-based consultant Bob Stockwell, who follows the district extensively in his blog Financial Deconstruction, also spoke positively of the new superintendent at the July 10 meeting.
“Carstarphen, she’s got energy to burn,” he said. “She’s bright, very smart. The other thing is she’s very, very focused on results.”
The Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods has invited Carstarphen to speak at its next meeting Aug. 14. The meeting will be held at 6:45 p.m. at The Lodge Cafe, 3417 Roswell Road, Buckhead.